Essay: A Reluctant Pandemic Journal: January–June 2020 by Verena Tay
Living with a pandemic can be testing and full of surprises (both pleasant and unpleasant). Verena Tay shows us a glimpse of her journal entries during the pandemic to show us life, as she sees it.
Some say there is value in writing down the minutiae of life, no matter how trivial, as a record of what happened for posterity. In this pandemic period, some say it is even more important to do so because these are unique and historic times that one must remember. Surely future generations will be keen to find out about the experiences of those who lived through Covid-19 so that they can draw some kind of significance for their own lives?
However, why journal about these times when so many of my contemporaries are making their own chronicles, now that literacy and art-making are more widespread? What about the importance of noting down my own perspective? Ah… Not much has really happened during the last few months for me.
There has been nothing heroic or exciting to write about when day in and day out, life repeated itself more or less in the same manner : Wake up in the morning. Morning ablutions. Water the plants. Unscrew the lids of the fermenting eco-enzyme bottles to let out the gas. Boil one kettle of water to make four cups of morning drinks: coffee, vinegar-based, one packet of Nin Jiom Cold Remedy, one herbal tea bag. Have breakfast. Read the latest online news and Facebook posts. Try to work on my PhD novel. Try not to be distracted by online stuff and computer games. Stand and walk about for snacks/go to the loo/look at my plants. Prepare lunch. Have lunch. More attempts at my novel in the afternoon. By the late afternoon, attend to my plants and stir the compost pots that I have been maintaining. Then dinner. And then more peering into my computer for games or YouTube videos of cute guinea pigs and rescued cats and dogs. (I neither own a television, nor subscribe to Netflix.) Then a shower, perhaps some book reading, and to bed. Wednesdays and Sundays are clean-the-home and laundry days.
There have been variations. Yoga on Zoom with my yoga teacher at least three or four times a week since 7 April when the Circuit Breaker (as the physical lockdown in Singapore has been termed) began. In May, I began gym sessions once a week with my trainer, also via Zoom. The physical activity has helped with my now very sedentary lifestyle. Otherwise my body would have frozen up totally.
I visited the shops in my neighbourhood of Clementi once or twice a week for groceries. There was a period of about two weeks where I made it a point to visit all the five small and medium-sized supermarkets in my vicinity in one day, so as to accumulate my daily 10,000 steps on my step tracker. Then the government mandated that contact tracing be started at shops. That measure deterred me, plus the fact that my pantry and fridge became too full.
By the end of April, I got bored with just shopping in Clementi. I also needed some items that could not be found where I lived. So once a week for several weeks, I actually took trains and buses further afield to Jem (a mall in Jurong East, one MRT station ride away), Jurong Point (another mall in Jurong West, four MRT stations away) and Vivocity (the mall at HarbourFront, over ten MRT stations away). The extra-large NTUC supermarkets at these places were as busy as their Clementi counterparts. So much for responsible social distancing. But it has been hard for shopping-mad Singaporeans to stay home and do nothing and when supermarkets were one of the few types of shops still allowed to be open for business. Even though I and the other people around me were masked, pushing a trolley and walking in the aisles of these hypermarkets seemed the closest to pre-Circuit Breaker times.
Riding on the trains and buses was strange for so few people were taking these modes of transport compared to previously. Buses were especially empty. There were more people on the trains: while the numbers were not large, I was surprised to see that there were people who were actively out and about. On both the trains and buses, there were tapes and signs across various seats and parts of each cabin, demarcating where people could and could not sit/stand as part of social distancing measures. While such signages were more appropriate for the trains, the buses had so few passengers that these notices were irrelevant.
To keep my mind active and have some kind of social life, I signed up for various online writing classes conducted via Zoom: a Joshua Ip poetry workshop (27 March); a six-session fiction workshop with Yu-Mei Balasingamchow (23 April‒28 May); a non-fiction three-session workshop led by Melissa De Silva (9, 14 & 30 May); ‘Prose in the Time of Pandemic’ class by Tim Tomlinson, New York Writers Workshop (June–July); T:>Works’ ‘Writing in the Digital’ workshop (22, 24, 26 & 27 June); ‘The Art of Spiritual Writing’ by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (11 & 12 July); participation in the first ever online version of T:>Works’ annual 24-Hour Playwriting Competition (18‒19 July).
Such small, small details: are these really worth recording and remembering? Yes, this has been my attempt at life during this pandemic. Nothing big or large. Just trying to keep my head down and be as socially responsible, while more ‘essential’ things were going around me, like health workers battling to stop the spread of the virus, preventing death, and helping the sick recover back to health.
Because the start of the pandemic and the lockdown period was an ugly time for me, I am not keen to keep a record of it. In what way ugly, you may ask?
The contextual explanation is a bit long-winded—please bear with me. Mask wearing during epidemics as a prophylactic measure first occurred in 2003 when SARS hit Singapore. Back then, because mask wearing was encouraged rather than mandated, I managed to escape wearing one on a regular basis. Subsequently when Singapore experienced the health scares of H1N1 and MERS, I also did not wear masks.
I started teaching scriptwriting part-time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in January 2020. By the end of January, fears about Covid-19 had become serious in Singapore such that people began wearing masks in public, even though it was not absolutely necessary and there were hardly any Covid-19 cases locally. After the Chinese New Year break, practically all of my NAFA students attended class wearing masks, but not me. Not only do I dislike the feel of a mask over my nose and mouth, I also felt it was a waste of resources to do so then.
While the health situation deteriorated worldwide, I stuck to my guns and remained mask-less until about mid-March. My sister is a general practitioner and she had been on high health alert since January. I usually have dinner with my sister and her family and my aged mother (who lives with my sister) on Saturday nights; after dinner, she kindly drives me home. On the evening of Saturday 14 March during the ride home, she scolded me for running the risk of remaining mask-less in public and for continuing to participate in group yoga classes, while health workers like her were trying so hard to keep the spread of Covid-19 down and at a manageable level.
By mid-March, international borders began closing. Because Singapore obtains quite a large proportion of its food supply from neighbouring Malaysia, I wanted to set up a vegetable-growing capacity at my sister’s home for her family in case vegetables became scarcer in the weeks and months to come. I spent the whole of Friday, 20 March with my niece buying the materials. I arrived at my sister’s home on Saturday, 21 March in the afternoon to do the planting before dinner. Because I have a sinus issue that flares up now and again, I asked my sister casually for some antihistamines to help control my sinuses that were overflowing that day.
Things then hit the roof. My sister went ballistic. Fearful that I was possibly falling ill with Covid-19, thereby endangering her household (especially our 95-soon-to-be-96-year-old mother and the 19-month-old son of my niece), she ordered me to be isolated and immediately drove me home with my share of dinner once it had been bought (her family had decided on having takeaway Jollibee fried chicken that night). And in the car, she gave me an even greater dressing down than the previous week and insisted that I follow a strict 5-day self-quarantine period, making sure I took my temperature and reported to her daily about my health status over the next five days.
Fortunately with some rest, my sinus condition improved. I did not come down with Covid-19. I do not hold it against my sister for what she did as she meant well and has always acted in the family’s best interests. Nevertheless, her reprimands smarted. After 21 March, I have dutifully worn surgical masks whenever I have been out in public. I also told my yoga teacher that I could no longer attend her physical classes.
Two weeks after the Circuit Breaker began, it was announced that the end date would be extended from 4 May to 2 June. I became depressed at the news. Because I live alone, the prospect that I would have to endure a lack of meaningful physical interaction with other people for several weeks longer than expected was quite daunting.
To keep my spirits up and hopefully help others at the same time, I devised a cheerful meme from a picture of tulips that I had taken in 2017. I sent out the meme to good friends and relatives on 23 April via WhatsApp. For Mother’s Day in May, I sent out yet another meme (based on a rose photo that I had also made in 2017) to married female friends.
On 28 May, a friend did a very nice thing. To support her sister-in-law who is a home-baker, she ordered a loaf of sourdough plus six scones to be delivered to people she knew, me being one such recipient.
This gesture gave me an idea. My niece has earned her living during this pandemic by making and selling masks. I ordered a bunch and mailed them out to various friends, including the bread-giver, as birthday or cheering up presents—part of my efforts to be a decent human being when all other parts of my life have not been ‘happening’.
Other than sending out masks, I actively propagated plants as gifts for when I next physically meet up with friends. In fact before the Circuit Breaker, I had already embarked on this endeavour. It takes several weeks for cuttings of basil/mint/Indian borage/lemon borage to root and be settled and matured enough in a pot so that they can be given away. Gifting plants delights recipients, which makes me happy in turn.
On 2 June, Singapore reopened with Phase One whereby certain types of activities were allowed. For instance, one could visit one’s parents as long as the elderly parent only had two visitors a day. So that meant that my weekly dinner at my sister’s home on Saturday nights could resume on 6 June.
On 19 June, Phase Two started in which all retail and dining establishments could cater to customers visiting physical premises, on the condition that various social distancing protocols were followed. On Day One of Phase Two, I ticked two items off my bucket list. First, I visited a bookshop to buy a set of Faber Castell colouring pencils. I had tried colouring pictures during the Circuit Breaker, but found that the Staedtler pencils I owned did not work well. I am not much of an online shopper and decided to only buy new pencils when I could next personally visit a shop.
Second, I visited a specific food stall in Jurong East. Specialising in Shandong cuisine, the stall sells the chunkiest and yummiest steamed dumplings in the western part of Singapore that I know of. During the Circuit Breaker proper, dining establishments could not serve dine-in customers; only takeaway was allowed. Over April and May, I had been dreaming of eating these dumplings hot and fresh from the pot (and not in cold takeaway format). So my 19 June dinner was most delicious.
All over town on 19 June, Singaporeans queued to enter various malls and shops and assuage their retail therapy needs after seventy days of lockdown. The only shops that were relatively empty were the supermarkets. I did my grocery shopping at the NTUC in Clementi Mall. It was bereft of customers compared to how busy it was at the height of the Circuit Breaker.
As a non-avid online shopper, I have had to rely on this format during the Circuit Breaker for a few key items. Then, I had a most unique retail experience that had nothing to do with a courier delivering goods that I had ordered. In pre-pandemic times, I would occasionally have people knock at my front door to promote Yakult or pizza vouchers, solicit donations for charitable causes, even promote Christian fellowship and the word of God. On 17 June while I was trying to concentrate on my novel, I heard someone calling outside my home. I went to investigate. Through the locked grille front gate, I saw two men standing in the common corridor outside with a trolley full of cardboard boxes. One of the men held a papier-mâché carton of 36 eggs before me, their surfaces wet with condensation. He said, “Sunny Queen eggs from Australia, only $4 for the whole carton. You want?”
I was shocked. No one had ever approached me to sell eggs in this manner and at this price, moreover Australian eggs. I said no at first. Then I had second thoughts and bought a carton to try.
Later, I went online to check. Sunny Queen eggs retail on Lazada.sg at $9.90 for a dozen. Even later, I came across a news article on a friend’s Facebook feed about an egg glut in Singapore arising from the pandemic situation. In February and March, supermarkets ran out of eggs as part of the same panic buying that led to toilet paper shortages because people were reacting in fear to the worsening news of Covid-19. To overcome such shortages, importers were encouraged to order eggs into Singapore from wherever in the world. Some weeks ago, it was reported in the news that Singapore now buys even eggs from Poland. However, due to the Circuit Breaker, the demand for eggs actually fell because dining establishments were closed for dine-in customers and Muslim families could not celebrate Eid in the usual style at the end of the fasting month, resulting in the oversupply of eggs. No wonder those two men were hawking eggs so cheaply right at my doorstep out of the blue.
On 18 June, I tested the eggs. They were in good condition. I used twelve of them because I had to cook the onions that were deteriorating in my fridge. I steamed eight eggs and I made my first ever perfect omelette using four eggs.
I do not like going for long walks now when I must breathe through a mask, although I know I should be more active. In crowded Singapore, it is impossible to exercise in the great outdoors where there is no such thing as the great outdoors because of the small size of this city-state. When the Circuit Breaker began, the government decreed that everyone had to wear masks if they were outside their homes and that people could walk in parks near one’s home for exercise as long as masks were worn (the only time that one could be mask-less in public was if one was engaging in strenuous exercise like jogging and cycling).
I tried walking once in the Sungei Pandan (Pandan River) Park Connector near my home one evening at the start of the Circuit Breaker. The area was even busier than before the Circuit Breaker, which made social distancing measures pointless. Two evenings later, I tried walking along the streets instead. Actually the walk was quite pleasant and much safer because there were far less people on the sidewalks than in the park and there were far less cars on the road compared to previously. But it was hard to breathe through the mask when I tried to walk briskly.
There are so many articles online that quote how walking does wonders for one’s creativity and cite positive examples such as Dickens, Thoreau, Hemingway and Woolf. Yes, I should follow suit and perhaps the pace at which my novel is developing would quicken once more blood and oxygen circulates through my body. But honestly, would Dickens, Thoreau, Hemingway and Woolf have been avid walkers if they had to always walk in the open with masks over their faces?
Even though I have been exercising somewhat with the help of Zoom, mostly sitting at home and not going out has changed my body. My belly and thighs feel quite uncomfortable. Even my upper arms are absolutely chunky.
But honestly, would Dickens, Thoreau, Hemingway and Woolf have been avid walkers if they had to always walk in the open with masks over their faces?
The uncertain weather has also made it hard to go for long walks on a regular basis. Typically, the southwest monsoon season occurs between April to September; it is usually the drier part of the year when rainfall is less and temperatures are higher because there are plenty of sunny days. 2020 has proved to be a very wet year for Singapore. There was plenty of rain even before the Circuit Breaker started, and this phenomenon continued. Periods of very hot and sunny days have been far and few between. Rain clouds build up fast and the skies are often overcast. Sometimes, thunder storms rage and the rain can lash down like crazy. Sometimes the rain just falls for hours on end.
The rain has been good because there have been more cooler days than usual. At the same time, the frequency of rain has meant terrible bouts of humidity that can arise before the rain falls—the type of humidity that squashes down on the skin and forces every ounce of sweat out of you, even though you have not even moved a muscle. During such occasions, I have merely sat in front of my computer or stood before my plants and have been drenched from head to foot.
The overcast skies have not been good for my plants, especially since my flat is built at an odd angle such that during the April-to-September period, the kitchen window gets good sun in the morning and zilch for the rest of the year; and conversely the common walkway outside my flat (where the bulk of my plants are) has very good direct afternoon sun from October to March and experiences oblique sunlight during the other half of the year. My mints have been suffering.
Perhaps it is better that it is a rainy year, rather than a time of drought. Then Singapore does not have to worry about water shortages amidst a pandemic. Another amazing thing that happened during the Circuit Breaker was the change in how public greenery has been maintained. Singapore the Garden City is known for its very immaculate image where grass, shrubbery and trees are regularly trimmed. Because such activity was deemed as non-essential from 7 April, grass and weeds have been allowed to grow wild. And indeed the grass and weeds (insect and bird life too) have proliferated amidst all the rain, changing both the landscape and public perception that it would be nice to live amidst a more natural looking environment. Perhaps in future when the pandemic is over, Singapore will continue to look and feel less sterile?
Unfortunately, one downside about the uncommon rain and the unpruned vegetation is the rise of dengue fever because mosquitoes have been able to breed more easily. According to government statistics, the 2020 figure of dengue cases will likely exceed the 2013 outbreak.
Another reason why I do not wish to maintain a journal during this pandemic period is because I have felt ‘so out of it’. In fact, I have been rather ‘out of things’ since September 2016 when I left Singapore to attempt to do my PhD in Creative Writing full time at Swansea University in Wales. I had to return to Singapore in April 2018, mainly because my home was sold off en-bloc to a developer and I had to manage the consequences.
Thereafter, I continued the PhD on a part-time, long distance basis. It has been hard to concentrate on writing the novel that forms the main part of my PhD thesis because of many factors. For the first six months back in Singapore, I had to pack everything from the condo unit that used to be my home in the Newton/Bukit Timah area, move my elderly mum in with my sister, and then move myself into my flat in Clementi, and then unpack. I had lived in the Newton district for fifty years. So adjusting to life in Clementi has taken more than a year. Moreover because the pace of life here is very fast, I had to reacquaint myself with Singapore and how I fitted in the arts scene after being away for one-and-a-half years. I also had to find work where I could to replenish my much-depleted coffers.
Only at the beginning of 2020 did I really make headway with my novel again. Because the subject matter and the time scale are not at all related to the pandemic (my elevator pitch of the novel is: ‘Amy Tan meets Neil Gaiman’, i.e., the story of three generations of Singaporean Chinese women with a mythological layer), the novel has made me feel rather ‘out of’ the pandemic. From September 2019 to March 2020, I was stuck at one point: Chinese New Year’s Eve of 1963. Thank goodness, I have moved beyond and have finished this section of the novel.
With Covid-19 causing so many socio-economic-cultural upheavals, will my novel be of any relevance when it is finished? Will my novel be able to find an audience receptive to its story? Will I be able to find a publisher, hopefully a publisher beyond Singapore as I have always dreamed of for my very first novel?
In some ways, the pandemic has been good for me as it has cut out a lot of distractions and forced me to sit in front of the computer and get that novel out, albeit still at a very slow rate. Conversely, sometimes the novel has been good for me because it made me focus on time/place/characters that are not of this current period, allowing me to mentally escape from the confines of the pandemic.
Thinking of what lies ahead, I worry for the fate of my novel. With Covid-19 causing so many socio-economic-cultural upheavals, will my novel be of any relevance when it is finished? Will my novel be able to find an audience receptive to its story? Will I be able to find a publisher, hopefully a publisher beyond Singapore as I have always dreamed of for my very first novel?
Singapore is highly dependent on cheap foreign labour to build and make this city-state tick. For instance, about 300,000 male workers are employed in the construction industry alone, housed mainly in purpose-built dormitories that were over-crowded. During this pandemic, Singapore has paid dearly for not providing such workers with adequate housing. The numbers of people stricken with Covid-19 escalated tremendously once the virus reached those dormitories. Because of active testing, more than 90% of Covid-19 sufferers in Singapore have been foreign workers. Unlike some countries, I am glad to say that Singapore has stood by its foreign workers and made sure that they have received the necessary medical care and/or experienced quarantine measures free-of-charge. Massive efforts have been made to house workers in various other buildings so as to reduce overcrowding for the short term. Long term plans have begun to be implemented to prevent overcrowded living conditions in the future.
As elsewhere, artists in Singapore have suffered greatly during the pandemic due to the loss of income and visibility as their various jobs and showcase opportunities have been cancelled. To add insult to injury, the following occurred: On 14 June, The Sunday Times published a survey that The Straits Times (Singapore’s main newspaper) commissioned that asked 1000 respondents on their views which were the most essential workers “that engaged in work deemed necessary to meet basic needs of human survival and well-being, such as food, health, safety and cleaning”. Topping the list of essential jobs were healthcare workers, cleaners and garbage collectors. According to the survey, artists topped the list of non-essential workers at 71%. Consequently, the artistic community in Singapore has been in uproar.
One cannot be more ‘out of’ the pandemic after having been deemed as non-essential.
One positive thing that has happened during this pandemic is how the diverse artistic community in Singapore has come together to provide self-help, consolidate efforts to bargain with authorities for support, and even seek collaboration in new projects. So many Facebook groups have sprung up to share ideas and spur action and activism.
For instance, my friend, the bread-giver, started this initiative called Creatives Commissioning Creatives. Apart from putting her own money into the kitty, she invited artists who could afford it to donate to a fund. At the same time, she opened up an application process in which other individual artists could propose quick and easy projects that could be completed within a few days. Successful applicants would then receive a few hundred dollars to execute their respective projects and the finished video/artwork circulated online. Two rounds were held, one in April, the other in May. I made a small contribution in April.
I have benefited from two of these support-local-artists initiatives. In mid-April, Covenant Chambers LLC, a law firm, advertised via Facebook posts that it would commission short videoed works that would help raise the morale of the general population during these bleak times. I proposed to read and record my short story, ‘Dawn’. I was successful in my application. My self-recording was posted on Youtube on 26 May.
At the end of May, I received an invitation from The Straits Times arts correspondent to be part of the ‘30 Days of Art with NAC’ project. Basically, I was commissioned to write a short story of no more than 700 words on the theme of ‘When All This is Over’. My flash fiction entitled ‘Masked’ was published on 23 June. The podcast of my reading of ‘Masked’ went live on 29 June.
There is yet another reason why I have been reluctant to maintain a pandemic journal. While tremendous forces of change are whirling about across the globe, all I have done are small things that can appear self-engrossed and egocentric, especially since I am neither an activist nor a health worker. Nevertheless, I will mention two things that I came across in the media that struck me as significant about the polarities of views out there in the world at large.
First: While I rode home in my sister’s car on Saturday 6 June, the BBC International radio channel played in the background. A journalist was interviewing an educated black woman about her thoughts on the pulling down of Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia. The respondent expressed great satisfaction at this outcome of the George Floyd protests.
Second: A few days earlier, I chanced upon an online piece by The Guardian. This article reported how a Trump supporter with an evangelical background regarded that Trump brandishing a bible in front of that Washington church was “the coolest thing” the American president has ever done.
With such divergent opinions out there, when will a common ground ever be reached and equality and peace ever achieved?
I have grown old during the Circuit Breaker, or at least become more accustomed to the notion that I am aging. I made one key decision: I would stop dying my hair. This action makes sense since my head is so full of white and grey that it is becoming futile to touch up my roots every three to four weeks. The self-recording of ‘Dawn’ that I did on 5 May is an illusion for the camera did not capture the back of my head which would have shown up all white and made me look like I had a monk’s tonsure.
On 2 June when Phase One of the relaxation of the Circuit Breaker occurred, I travelled to QB House Premium outlet at Jem and ordered the hair stylist to crop off as much of my black hair as possible. I am now evolving into a new me.
A Singapore-based writer, editor, storyteller and theatre practitioner, Verena Tay has published two short story collections and four volumes of plays. She has edited twelve story anthologies, including the popular Balik Kampung series published by Math Paper Press. Currently, she is writing her first novel as part of her PhD studies in Creative Writing at Swansea University.